Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

30 March 2021

Singapore: First Airbus H225M helicopter received

(dql) Singapore’s Air Force has received its first H225M medium-lift transport helicopter from the European aerospace corporation Airbus. The delivery is part of the contract Singapore’s Ministry of Defence concluded in 2016 with Airbus Helicopters for the procurement of H225M helicopters to replace the existing fleet of AS332 Super Pumas.

The H225M will be used for various operations, including search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as Maritime Security operations. It is also regularly used to conduct aeromedical evacuation missions from ships plying through nearby waters. [Defense News] [Airforce Technology]


30 March 2021

Malaysia pays Singapore compensation for terminated rail network project

(dql) Malaysia has compensated Singapore nearly 103 million SGD for costs incurred by the termination of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project.

In 2016, the two countries signed the HSR agreement. At Kuala Lumpur’s request, construction of the rail network was later suspended from September 2018 to 31 December last year. With both sides failing to agree on changes to the project, the agreement lapsed on 31 December, with Singapore’s Minister of Transport announcing the agreement’s termination the next day. [Yahoo News]

23 March 2021

Myanmar: Rising death toll and more international efforts to pressure the military

(nd) Lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged the largest foreign-owned oil and gas companies to suspend business ties with the military regime, saying the money earned will be used to reinforce human rights violations. Per month, Myanmar receives earnings of about US$75 million to US$90 million from oil and gas sales, paid through state-owned company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In an effort to cut the junta off these supplies, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese government in exile representing the NLD, sent a notice to France’s Total SE, Malaysia’s Petronas, Thailand’s PTT and South Korea’s POSCO, criticizing them for their failure to condemn the coup, and urging them to suspend their tax payments. [Irrawaddy 1]

Also, CRPH is negotiating with Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State and Kachin Independent Army (KIA) to form a federal army to protect the protesters. They have cleared all ethnic armed groups from the terror list. In light of the growing violence, so far peaceful protesters started to use self-constructed weapons, such as molotov cocktails, and built barricades from tires, bricks or bamboo. [FAZ in German]

Meanwhile, the efforts of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spreads virally, with a “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime. On social media, protesters identified names, addresses and other personal information on relatives of the military generals, and urged people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. [Frontier Myanmar 1

Four employees of a private bank were detained for allegedly inciting people to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). [Irrawaddy 2] Due to the ongoing strikes, companies struggle to pay salaries amid closed banks. [Nikkei Asia 1] With an ongoing strike, the military has fired officials from the Foreign Ministry and has pressured banks to reopen in an effort to avoid an economic collapse. [Frontier Myanmar 2]

With the junta using more excessive force, the death toll rose to over 250 and reports of at least 5 cases of torture in detention have surfaced. Internet shutdowns let information spread slowly. Protesters erected barricades in the streets, which were set on fire making Yangon look like a battle zone. [Asia Times 1] In an effort to intimidate citizens, security forces randomly opened fire in residential areas and at individual residences. Shortages of food and drinking water continued, hinting at a looming humanitarian crisis. Adding to internet blackouts, phone services were cut off in some areas. Protesters reported they refrain from forming groups, which are randomly attacked and shot at by the police.

The military continued to target journalists and closed down the last independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, following 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times. Private media outlets have been operating in the country since 2013, after the lifting of the ban on independent media since 1962.  [Radio Free Asia 1] Police also continued to raid homes in search of protesters; over 2,000 people have been arrested. [Radio Free Asia 2] To mark the one-month anniversary of the protests, activists organized a car convoy, others lit candles, joined by Buddhist monks. Reportedly, members of the security forces were attacked and died, as well as two policemen during protests. After security forces have occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses in 13 states and regions, Unicef, Unesco, and private humanitarian group Save the Children, issued a statement condemning the occupation of education facilities as a serious violation of children’s rights. [South China Morning Post 1]

Following the attack on Chinese businesses on Sunday, an unsigned editorial, published on the website of state-run CGTN network, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded. The editorial added, “China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.” China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy and shares a 2,200-kilometer border, which is of interest for Chinese infrastructure projects giving it a corridor to the Indian Ocean. [The Diplomat 1] Inter alia, China is extracting minerals in Myanmar, whose shipments have delayed significantly, making a global price rise likely. China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies. [Asia Times 2]

According to experts, the systematic crackdown on the Rohingyas executed by the military since 2017 is just postponed and likely to restart, possibly turning protests into a “prolonged crisis”. Recently hired Canadian-Israeli lobbyist for the junta, Ari Ben-Menashe, said the military want to repatriate Rohingyas. [Voice of America]

Sam Rainsy, exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesian lawmaker Fadli Zon, Philippine Senator Kiko Pangilinan, former Singapore Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya signed a statement urging all ASEAN nations to unite in sanctions against Myanmar and to end impunity. The politicians criticized the “impotence” of ASEAN amid the human rights abuses, and suggested to suspend Myanmar’s membership in the regional bloc. [Benar News]

In some of the strongest comments yet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged the violence to stop immediately and to press current chairman of ASEAN, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, to call an urgent meeting. [Reuters] Following Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint push for an urgent high-level meeting of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will visit Brunei, before going to Malaysia and Indonesia. [Channel News Asia]

The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 11 individuals linked to the coup in Myanmar. The EU already had an arms embargo on Myanmar, and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018. Stronger measures are expected in a move to target the businesses run by the military, mainly through two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. [Nikkei Asia 2]

According to Thai media, the Royal Thai Army had supplied 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar army units on Myanmar’s eastern border allegedly on the orders of the Thai government. The commander of the task force denied it and said it was regular trade. Residents told a Reuters reporter the crossing was not a normal trade route. The allegedly supplied army units were cut off by forces of the Karen National Union (KNU), who have pledged allegiance to the protest movement. [Bangkok Post]

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating an anti-corruption law, with a possible prison sentence of 15 years, adding to four previous charges with other offences. [South China Morning Post 2]

The influential, Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), a government-appointed body of Buddhist abbots, urged the military to end violence against protesters. It was submitted to the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture. The statement mentioned the CDM, which would greatly benefit from support by Mahana. As a rather conservative organization, the clear cut with the military is significant, according to analysts. It might unleash monastic opposition, which has historic precedents. [The Diplomat 2]

Ousted lawmakers of NLD are exploring if the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate crimes against humanity committed by the military since the coup. Following the toughening crackdown, hundred have fled Myanmar to bordering Thailand, which has prepared for a big influx of refugees, as well as to India. [South China Morning Post 3]

23 March 2021

Singapore, UAE to strengthen bilateral economic ties

(nd) Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have announced to strengthen their bilateral economic ties, including partnerships in technology, innovation, artificial intelligence (AI), space technologies and the public sector. Their first bilateral forum was held in 2007. UAE remains Singapore’s largest trading partner and investment destination in the region region, with bilateral trade of about $12.8 billion last year. [Straits Times]

23 March 2021

Singapore: Mutually recognized Covid-19 vaccination certificate 

(py) Recently, the foreign ministers of Singapore and New Zealand discussed the possibility of developing a mutual Covid-19 vaccination digital certificate. In February, Singapore announced that it had developed a globally interoperable standard for cross-border verification of health documents such as digital certificates using blockchain technology. Besides, in early March, Singapore Airlines was also the first airline to test the International Air Transport Association Travel pass, which is a mobile app to help airlines verify passengers’ Covid-19 test results and vaccines status. [Channel News Asia]

Furthermore, the Foreign minister of Singapore would also be making visits to three Southeast Asian countries, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Indonesia. The minister expected to reaffirm ties and discuss post-Covid collaborations during his visit. The media doubted whether the visit was also to discuss a way to deescalate the situation in Myanmar after the Indonesian Prime Minister called for an end to the massacre under Military Junta and urged the Southeast Asian leaders to convene. [Yahoo News]

16 March 2021

SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020

(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)

Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.

23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]


16 March 2021

Singapore: Threats to trade and security 

(py) Singapore, the economically powerful a city-state, assumes a significant role in the region’s economic and political arena, especially in the US-China trade war. The trade war between the two great powers and accompanying protectionism has threatened the globalization process. For Singapore, the US remains the main security partner and the largest investor. China, on the other hand, is Singapore’s biggest export destination. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasized Singapore could not afford to take sides and encouraged cooperation between the big powers.

Additionally, Singapore is facing growing presence of terrorism, with a 16-year-old boy arrested in January for plotting to attack mosques, the first acts of terrorism with an extreme right-wing background. Singapore has experience countering terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), setting up a rehabilitation program for militants in 2003. Such experience can help mitigate growing threats from extremism targeting ethnic and religious groups. [BBC] [The Diplomat]

9 March 2021

Singapore, US to reaffirm bilateral defense ties

(nd) In a recent telephone call, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen reaffirmed their bilateral defense ties and voiced a desire to deepen them, discussing current regional security challenges. The US expressed appreciation for the regional access provided to US forces in Singapore, and they emphasized their wish to cooperate with respect to inter alia US force posture and counterterrorism. [Straits Times]

2 March 2021

Chinese diplomatic strategy: Boats and Vaccines 

(py) China and Singapore started a joint navy exercise as part of a 2019 agreement aimed at enhancing the two navies’ mutual trust, friendship and at promoting cooperation and the construction of a maritime community. The agreement also entails more high-level dialogues, academic and think tank exchanges and an increase the current bilateral exercise scope. An expert said the reason behind such drills was the weakened defense diplomacy in the region since most military personnel have been allocated to pandemic control. In early February, the US Secretary of State also called on Singapore’s foreign minister to emphasize the importance of US-Singapore security and economic relation and the US’s intention to strengthen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. Besides military drills, Beijing seems to be eager to spread its vaccines in the region. China has provided Singapore with Sinovac vaccines even before the authorization from the Health Ministry. Experts said the move might be part of China’s vaccine diplomacy to showcase the world its capabilities to produce vaccines that are adopted in the first-world country. [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]

23 February 2021

Anti-Singapore sentiment and Singapore’s latest move towards anti-coup in Myanmar 

(py) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently denounced the use of lethal weapons of the junta against unarmed civilians in Myanmar after a report of two deaths in the city of Mandalay. Singapore is now under tremendous pressure as there have been anti-Singapore sentiments over the internet, urging citizens to boycott Singaporean products and business chains. Protesters urge Singapore to use its economic clout to support the movement. However, ASEAN’s principle in non-interference and respect for member’s national sovereignty might block the way for possible collective and individual actions against the junta. Nevertheless, Singapore could still exert its power by publicizing the military’s financial activities in Singapore, suspend or slow dealings with junta-linked bodies. Experts doubt such actions would be taken. [South China Morning Post] [Channel News Asia]

23 February 2021

ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace

(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.

Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.

A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.

Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.

Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]

In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.

The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.

In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]

16 February 2021

Malaysian deported from Singapore over terrorist charges

(py) A Malaysian man was arrested in Singapore under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in July 2020 after investigations revealed that he was a supporter of the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Though he was repatriated to Malaysia in August 2020, it remains unclear why the Singaporean authority has just announced his expulsion this week. As of now, he is accused of possessing items related to terrorist acts, and the intention to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS. His Singaporean wife was also radicalized after her marriage and is currently receiving religious counseling. [Benar News]

Late last year, Singapore announced the deportation of another Malaysian national following his radicalization, who was cleared by Malay police upon return. The threat posed by terrorism is decreasing in Malaysia. While last year, Malaysia had arrested seven individuals and successfully charged four, in 2019 72 IS-linked suspects were arrested, and 119 in 2018. Still, security analysts highlighted that amid the pandemic, ISIS was stepping up recruitment in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.


16 February 2021

ASEAN-EU strategic partnership

(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.

Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.

The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.

Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]


16 February 2021

ASEAN to have less trust in China

(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.

China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]


9 February 2021

Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects 

(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.

Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]

9 February 2021

Singapore: Law to limit scope of TraceTogether data usage

(py) A law limiting the ability to use personal data collected via the app TraceTogether was introduced to Parliament February 1. The legislative move came in response to a public outcry that the Criminal Procedure Code enabled the police to obtain any data under Singapore’s jurisdiction for criminal investigations, including data collected by the app. The app was introduced last year with government assuring its data would only be used for contract tracing with respect to the Covid-19 pandemic. The newly introduced bill shall clarify this and foresees to only allow data usage to fight the pandemic and in case of seven categories of serious offences such as with relation to terrorism, drug trafficking and serious sexual offences. The law also includes punishment for unauthorized use or personal contact data disclosure, which is listed as an offence. [The Strait Times]

9 February 2021

Singapore: Police warning not to hold protests over Myanmar 

(py) The police issued a warning not to protest with respect to “recent developments in Myanmar”. The announcement came as a reaction towards online postings in support of Myanmar, encouraging participation in demonstrations. Police reminded them of the Public Order Act, which carries as an offense to organize or participate in a public assembly without a police permit. Police reminded “foreigners visiting, working or living in Singapore” “to abide by our law” and otherwise will be “dealt with firmly”, having their visas or work passes terminated. Last week’s coup by the Myanmar military saw hundreds of thousands of protesters, including doctors and state employees, taking to the streets and staging civil disobedience. [Channel News Asia]

9 February 2021

Singaporean investor to cut ties to Myanmar military

(nd) Singaporean businessman and co-founder of Hong Kong-listed gaming group Razer, Lim Kaling, announced to cut economic ties to Myanmar’s military, following last week’s coup. Lim was a minority shareholder (49%) in Virginia Tobacco Company through RMH Singapore Pte Ltd, with the rest held by Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEHL). MEHL is one of the two conglomerates run by the military, which have connections to nearly every industry and sector in the country. Local advocacy group Justice For Myanmar welcomed the step and urged Lim to persuade RMH Singapore to end their business with MEHL. Earlier, Japanese beverage producer Kirin announced to end its long-standing joint venture with MEHL, following pressure by activists. Such moves were promoted by human rights groups to foreign investors for years. 

Myanmar’s economy, already hit by the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, is likely to suffer more from last week’s coup, with Western sanctions lurking. Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in a televised speech was eager to present stability, saying this coup would be “different”, foreign investors are invited and all development projects would continue. Although adverse reactions of foreign investors after the Military’s crimes against the Rohingya Muslims of western Myanmar in 2017 were largely inexistent, the latest coup is likely to see stronger repercussions, for its definite end to Myanmar’s era of political reform. [The Diplomat]


9 February 2021

ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar

(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.

 While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.

Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms. 

Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]

2 February 2021

Singapore: Teenager planned attack on mosques

(nd) As the youngest person to be detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a Singaporean teenager was arrested in December last year for plotting an attack on two mosques with a machete. The self-radicalized teenager was inspired by the far-right extremist Brenton Tarrant, who live-streamed the massacre of more than 50 Muslims at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack was planned for March 15, the same day of the attack in New Zealand.

Terror plots in Southeast Asia have so far been dominated by Islamist threats, as opposed to racist far-right extremism known to Western countries. [South China Morning Post]

2 February 2021

Singapore: Contract for the rail link awarded

(py) The Singapore branch of China Communications Construction Company Limited has been awarded a S$180 million deal to construct a 25m-high viaduct and tunnels for the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) link. Once completed, the 4-km journey between the two ends would take around five minutes. The line is expected to commence passenger service at the end of 2026. [Channel News Asia]

26 January 2021

Singapore, India sign deal for submarine rescue mission

(lm) At the 5th India-Singapore Defense Minister’s Dialogue held through video conferencing, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen on January 20 witnessed the signing of the Implementing Agreement on Submarine Rescue Support and Cooperation. Under the agreement, the navies of both countries seek to extend rescue facilities to each other’s submarines. [The Straits Times]

While discussing regional security developments, during the meeting, both ministers also reaffirmed the strong and longstanding bilateral defense relationship and their commitment to sustain defense cooperation across the three services, and in defense technology and multilateral engagements. [The Hindu]


26 January 2021

Singapore: Latest challenge to section 377A

(nd) Three Singaporean activists challenged the decision by the High Court last year, which upheld section 377A of the criminal code, penalizing male sexual intercourse. The law stems from the British colonial rule and is rarely enforced. According to the activists, the law breaches the right to equality before the law, the right to life and personal liberty and the right to freedom of expression protected by the constitution. A previous challenge of the law was rejected in 2014. Singapore has an active LGBT scene, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year inviting LGBT people to work in Singapore.

Regionally though, socially conservative attitudes remain. Myanmar, Malaysia and Brunei have laws banning sexual relationships between men. In Indonesia, raids targeting LGBT people were on the rise in recent years. Contrarily, the Supreme Court in India has overturned the British rule on criminalizing male homosexual sex. Taiwan was the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage in 2019. [South China Morning Post]

26 January 2021

ASEAN human rights hit by pandemic

(nd) According to deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, human rights took a hit amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted inequalities and vulnerability. Malaysia for instance excluded their 3,5 million migrants and refugees from government aid programs. For a lack of governmental support in Myanmar, some of the overlooked people relied on armed rebel groups for aid instead. In Singapore and partly in Thailand, the virus transmission was blamed on migrants, creating an anti-immigrant sentiment.

Apart from economic differences and hardships, the pandemic allowed to “reinforce” existing policies to target dissidents under the umbrella of health protection, as seen with protesters in Thailand. According to US-based rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers and neighborhood leaders to shoot “troublemakers” protesting during community quarantine, furthering the “climate of impunity”, which was set off by his infamous drug on war, resulting in increased killings of activists. In this militaristic atmosphere, police officers were found to have committed abused enforcing stay-at-home orders. [Voice of America]

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 

19 January 2021

Singapore: American care packs to needy residents in Singapore

(py) As part of events leading up to the January 20th inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore along with the American Association of Singapore have organized the distribution of care packs to needy residents in Singapore. [The Straits times]

19 January 2021

China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia 

(nd) After Chinese company Sinovac announced a 78% efficacy rate during its trials of CoronaVac, Brazilian scientists reported a significantly lower rate of 50,4 %, casting doubt on China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for advised use is 50%. Indonesia’s own trials found an efficacy of 63,3%, with Indonesia’s food and drug agency to be the first in the world to approve use of the Sinovac vaccinations. Despite the high numbers and the prominent vaccination of President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian population is rather reluctant to receive a shot due to concerns over safety and efficacy. [Asia Times]

Thailand and the Philippines have also already purchased doses of CoronaVac, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticizing Western vaccination makers for their unscrupulous prices. Vaccinations produced by Moderna and Pfizer-Biontech have shown efficacy rates of about 95%, but are more expensive and have to be transported and stored in costly freezers. Besides the price and its availability, buying Chinese vaccinations will potentially bring more general benefits, with China having already announced it will look kindly on purchasers of its products. [Asia Times]

Despite China being the country’s closest ally and economic patron, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last year to only purchase WHO-approved vaccines, which to date doesn’t include any of the at least four vaccinations produced by China, which prompted observers to state that it will take the country until at least mid-2022 to be able to vaccinate more than 60% of its population. The Chinese government and state media downplayed the efficacy results, but they still raised already existing public doubt over the reliability of Chinese vaccinations, and the more general notion of unsafe and hasty production of vaccinations against Covid-19 generally. Yet, early this week Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a donation of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, contradicting previous pledges. Hun Sen argued amid a Thai Covid-19 case surge, he cannot afford to wait, and referred to the rollout of the vaccine in China, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. [Nikkei Asia]

During his visit to the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million (500 million yuan) in grants. Philippine Foreign Minister Locsin, however, also made reference to the South China Sea dispute. According to observers, in light of the incoming Biden administration, the donation and investment in infrastructure was an effort to present itself as a partner to revive heavy-hit economies in the regions. [South China Morning Post]


12 January 2021

Singapore: New weapon law passed

(py) A new law was passed to regulate guns, explosives and weapons (GEW) and toughen penalties for unauthorized possession. The law requires class licensing for ornamental weapons such as daggers and swords, and also criminalizes unauthorized possession of 3D digital blueprints of guns and gun parts with designs taken from the interne as well as armed drones. 

Under the new law, the Minister of the Home Affairs has the power to issue security directions in certain situations, for example a situation which requires a more expedient response than modifying licensing conditions allows, such as if there is imminent threat to life or property. [The Strait Times]

12 January 2021

Singapore: Bill to make laws easier to understand passed

(py) The Parliament has passed the Statute law Reform Bill, which foresees a greater use of simplified language in legislation. The Law Revision Commissioners are granted the power to make editorial changes to shape legislation in accordance with modern drafting practices without altering their meaning. Additionally, in order to deal with the ongoing pandemic, the law extends the definition of “Parliament” to include not only Parliament House but any place appointed by the President. [The Strait Times]


5 January 2021

Singapore: Modernization of the military

(nd) Determined to find an equilibrium between the possibilities of technology for armed forces and maintaining peace and security to avoid an arms race in the region, the next-generation modernization of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is likely to focus on three major points until 2030. First, technology will be enhanced, including sensor-shooter cycle, surveillance, pre-emptive maintenance and training on data analytics. This also encompasses unmanned, automated, artificial intelligence (AI), cyber and space-based assets. While this is a global trend, in Singapore’s case, technology partially curbs the demographic issue with the number of conscripts expected to fall by a third in the next ten years. Second, technology will be expanded to cover homeland and cybersecurity threats, including special formations like the Island Defence Task Force, the Special Operations Task Force and the Maritime Security Task Force to address terrorism. Thirdly, training for kinetic operations will be continued, including larger and more realistic training areas.

In light of the growing tension with China in the region, Singapore’s modernization efforts could also be misunderstood and jeopardize its neutrality, showcased in rumors about Singapore working as a possible home port for the US Navy’s First Fleet. [East Asia Forum]

5 January 2021

Singapore: Former Chinese spy arrested

(nd) Singaporean spy Dickson Yeo, jailed in the US for spying for China earlier last year, has upon his arrival in Singapore been arrested to be questioned on whether “he had engaged in activities prejudicial to Singapore’s security.”

From 2015 to 2019, Yeo used his US-based political consultancy as a front for Chinese intelligence services, according to court documents. To do so, Yeo hired US military and government insiders with high security clearances to write reports for the consultancy, which he then provided to China. According to the court documents, he was aware that those were affiliated with Chinese intelligence. The former PhD student at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) was recruited by Chinese intelligence during his time at the university. [South China Morning Post]

5 January 2021

Singapore: New law on digital payment

(py) The parliament has passed the Payment Services (Amendment) Bill, which aims to strengthen current standards for virtual asset service providers in digital payment tokens (DPTs) also known as cryptocurrencies. Under this new amendment, the Money Authority of Singapore (MAS) will be able to regulate cryptocurrency service providers who facilitate the use of cryptocurrencies for payments to ensure consumer protection. This shall also curb the feared speed and transnational nature of cryptocurrency, which could impose higher money laundering and terrorism financing risks. [The Strait Times]

5 January 2021

ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals

(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.

For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.

Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]

5 January 2021

Malaysia, Singapore to terminate multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project

(nd) Malaysia and Singapore announced they would terminate a 2016 plan to build a US$25 billion high-speed rail project. Demanded changes by the Malay side were not agreed upon. The Malaysian government will have to pay a fee for the cancellation of the contract, reportedly more than S$100 million (US$75 million).

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, who unexpectedly won the general election in 2018, asked for a commencement extension to re-evaluate costs and the project’s merits, referring to the huge national debt. Following the PH’s oust by a political coup in March, Prime Minister Yassin Muhyiddin’s administration tried to renegotiate, including a realignment of the rail link to connect it to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), to avoid the feared divert in traffic to Singapore’s more established Changi Airport.

The original plan was to reduce travel time from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to 90 minutes for the 350km distance. The pandemic and expected decrease in travel also for business purposes might have made the project less economically interesting. [South China Morning Post]